Vietnam 1972 - the beginning of the end

Panajachel, Guatemala, OT

Becoming a “patriot warrior” and living out this role absorbed my early adult life. This all peaked on 14 April 1972, at the age of 30. I was serving as Senior Advisor, 6th Airborne Battalion, Airborne Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had just launched a major country-wide offensive, to include a multi-division attack to seize An Loc, a sizeable city which held the key to the most direct route to Saigon . The enemy had succeeded in surrounding the city. My battalion was picked to spearhead an effort to break the stranglehold.
On this date, 6th Battalion made a heliborne assault to the southeast of An Loc to secure a key ridgeline. We almost immediately encountered intense enemy fire. My role was to keep close contact with the Vietnamese battalion commander, Maj. Dinh, and help him as best I could - largely by moving about to positions where I could most advantageously adjust United States tactical aircraft and gunships.
I was in the first sortie. We landed on the ground uncontested., but quickly things turned hot. I was on the radio calling for air support when, suddenly, a mortar burst in the tree overhead. The sound was deafening. I was blown to the earth. Lying there, I found myself bleeding from multiple fragmentation wounds over most of my body. The shell had exploded in a tree and sprayed metal fragments and wood splinters at everything near where it hit.
My most serious problem was an upper thigh wound, just missing the leg’s major artery, yet still producing a significant flow of blood. Metal fragments that had lodged in my hip and my shoulder were searingly painful but the wounds weren’t bleeding much. I also saw a bunch of smaller flesh wounds around my chest and in one hand that just stung in comparison to the more serious ones. I inventoried this mayhem to my body, lying on my side in a daze, through a haze full of sulphurous smoke and the dust from dirt kicked up by the lethal rain of the shell burst. Stated mildly, my dilemma was serious….
As I looked about, I saw that virtually all of the command group had been hit by the same explosion that wounded me. A soldier a few yards away was curled-up, holding his stomach and sobbing in pain. Others were groggily moving about, attending to their own wounds or to the wounds of others.
Vietnamese combat units had few medics. Those of the Sixth Battalion were with its rifle companies. All soldiers carried individual wound dressings and some were charged with carrying first aid kits. There were few kits to go around.
I grasped that I was just one of many with a problem and that there was no sense in waiting for help. Fighting through my own mental fog, I began talking aloud to myself, to push myself into action. The voice in my head helped me work. "Get on with it", I mumbled, finding and tearing open the first aid dressing in the pouch on my belt. I pressed it against the thigh wound, tying it around the leg as tightly as possible.
My attention went next to the seeping wound inside my left hip. I widened the rip at the site of the damage and poured some water from my canteen on it. I had no other bandages. Tearing some material from my pants, I dabbed the wound. The gash was ugly and sore to the touch, but the bleeding wasn't bad. A piece of shrapnel had been stopped by the pelvic bone. I crumpled the rag and pressed it against the wound as I examined the rest of my body.
My right hand ached from something I didn't understand. But I could open and close it and I could move all my limbs. Miraculously my head was untouched. My helmet had been off when the mortar round had burst overhead.
I found some minor, essentially-closed skin breaks in my chest to include one over my heart; flesh wounds from small shrapnel splinters. The only other damage seemed to be to my right shoulder. Metal had penetrated there and lodged in the bone. The immediate area was numb but hardly bleeding. I decided to leave it alone for the time.
I looked about. The enemy fire had temporarily abated.. Major Dinh's operations officer was unhurt and was hurrying around, restoring order. The dead and wounded were being carried off. Dinh was talking on what appeared to be the only workable radio. Captain Truong was sticking a needle in Dinh's right arm, probably penicillin, maybe morphine. Other soldiers were occupied trying to make the other communications equipment work.
My Vietnamese radio operator had disappeared or was dead and unrecognizable. The portable radio was laying on the ground but the handset, which had been in my hand, was shattered. I fiddled with the radio itself and it seemed to work. I dug into my utility bag and pulled out a spare handset. I connected it and listened. I heard a satisfying rushing sound from the receiver.
I could faintly hear the sound of a helicopter orbiting at some distance, along with sporadic gunfire from the LZ.
I pressed the push-to-talk switch, "Anyone circling, this is Rabid Dog 6," I called, nebulously, hoping to reach someone in the air.
A clear response came. "Rabid Dog, this is Greased Circuit, Sitrep please, over."
I recognized the voice of an American advisor I had met the day before, a colonel who had impressed me as being both mentally and physically tough. At the time, the senior officer's confidence had been reassuring. Now his voice gave me a helpful boost. He was using standard, abbreviated radio-telephone procedure asking me for a report on my situation.
Quickly I responded. "Command Group hit by artillery. Restoring order. I'm wounded. Situation uncertain."
"Give me your fix. I'll come and pull you out" came the reply.
"Too dangerous to land now" I said. "Let me get a handle on what's going on and I'll call you back. Meanwhile, try to get me some air support." It was broad daylight and heavy caliber bullets were criss-crossing every visible segment of air space.
The American in the air understood. "Stay in touch, buddy. We'll get you out tonight" he said. "Just hang in there." And then he was gone. And I was left to do my job.
I did what I could while I could but the loss of blood eventually left me useless. I found my way to a wounded collection point and collapsed on the ground to wait for nightfall with the vague hope that a MEDEVAC helicopter might risk rescuing me under the cover of darkness.
I can still vividly recall the course of that night as it developed. The moon had replaced the sun. Its reflection on the ash and the shadows of shattered trees seemed surreal. The sky had become black with a few faint specks of white. The night air was heavy. It was quiet for a combat zone with only irregular outbursts of gunfire, bombing, and rocket fire in the distance.
Time passed. Suddenly, a voice broke across his radio. "Rabid Dog, this is Medevac. Inbound your location, over."
Startled back to reality, I quickly grabbed the radio and pressed the handset's "push to talk" switch. "Medevac, this is Rabid Dog. I hear you loud and clear."
The voice was closer now. "Rabid Dog. I have your approximate location. I need you to turn on a strobe light for a better fix. What's the status on the ground?"
I turned on my strobe. I began to hear the sound of the approaching helicopter. "LZ secure. Clear of overhead obstacles and loose debris, but heavy tree blow-down. Over."
"I see your strobe. I need to get in and out fast. I'll hover for you. Can you stand?"
My adrenalin was again pumping, driving away the crippling effects of the day. "Roger, Medevac. I have other wounded. I'll get them ready."
The other voice hesitated, then responded with a mix of annoyance and regret. "We were told you were the only American."
I understood this new ground rule of the "Vietnamization" policy. Still, most of the wounded Vietnamese were in worse shape than I was, and I couldn't leave them. They had been stirred to hope by the approaching helicopter and my conversation with its pilot. Two of the paratroopers had already joined me, each dragging along a badly hurt companion.
Now, the helicopter reached us and dropped into a low hover. I helped a badly wounded soldier to a waiting crewman at the side door. Recognizing the soldier was not an American, the rescuer hesitated to take him. Quickly, I crouched low against the wounded man's torso and thrust him upward into the other American's arms. The crewman conceded and pulled him into the helicopter. The two lesser wounded Vietnamese helped me push several more badly wounded soldiers aboard before letting ourselves be helped upward. The crew chief signaled the pilot and the helicopter banked into a rapid, steep climb. Now, out of the jaws of death, we were on our way to Saigon.
I would be awarded three combat medals for the day - the United States Bronze Star for Valor, the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star - the latter from the grateful but now defunct government of what was, at the time, South Vietnam.
But the end of this adventure was just the beginning of enduring reflection that would become more disturbing to me over time, as our Army continued fighting undeclared wars on foreign battlefields.
I had been riding the tail of a bankrupt war, a struggle that was about to end for me and my country. I felt sorry for the comrades I was leaving – not so much the Americans of the VN Airborne who were all volunteers – but for the Vietnamese who had been encouraged to seek a future along the American model of democracy. For the United States it had been a strategic chess game, a power venture at the macro- level. But for the South Vietnamese who had been sold on our friendship and commitment to our style of government and society, it was a tragedy of abandonment.
The penchant for U.S. involvement in foreign wars would persist into the future in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. To meet the call, our country would continue to attract youth who, at the outset, considered themselves "patriot warriors." Some of these young people would arrive at this mindset conditioned by generations of dedicated family service to their country. Others were captivated by the rhetoric of a noble career; some of them from humble origins, essentially non- ideological, seeking to lift themselves from their humble roots by courageous endeavor; and others who, simply out of ignorance accept the prevailing ideology fostered by our social institutions.
The hardships these mostly idealistic young men and women face after exposure to war were rarely realistically anticipated by them beforehand. Whether or not they were personally crippled physically or emotionally, they and their families were left largely on their own to preserve or reconstruct their lives after the travail.
The noble rhetoric commonly voiced by politicians about caring for war veterans is rarely adequately backed with sufficient material resources. Many veterans are lucky to have the trappings of normal life restored. But, the reconstruction of one’s being after the trauma of experiencing war doesn’t end with reducing physical handicaps, such as the fitting of prosthetic limbs to an amputee. The availability of a job in returning to civil life doesn’t, in itself, resolve deep issues of emotional disturbance produced by the trauma of war’s horrors.
Today, we have a president who is declaring aloud the importance of caring for veterans. There are new programs afoot to improve the lives of those who risked their lives for our country. Only time will tell, if these words and initiatives will translate into meaningful action.

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